National Teacher of the Year Shares Philosophy, Techniques

National Teacher of the Year Michelle Shearer shows off a photo of chemistry class at Urbana High School before addressing University of Mississippi education students and teacher candidates at the DeSoto Center in Southaven.

OXFORD, Miss. – When National Teacher of the Year Michelle Shearer begins an address – whether to students, fellow teachers or community leaders – she shares a photo of her 100-plus chemistry students at Urbana High School in Fredrick County, Md.

She calls them her second family.

“We’re here to talk about students,” Shearer said during a recent visit to the University of Mississippi. “They’re what it’s all about. When I look at my classroom, I see family. But I also see progress. I see equal numbers of male and female. I see students with special needs.”

Shearer’s visit to the University of Mississippi marked the second consecutive year the School of Education has brought the National Teacher of the Year to speak with student teachers on the cusp of graduation and their first year as teachers.

In four separate meetings with UM education students, teacher candidates and faculty in Oxford and Southaven, the master teacher talked with more than 100 future teachers, delivering a student-centered message around four questions:

– Do you love children?

– What’s your energy level?

– Can you sustain it?

– Will you commit to teaching as a career?

“Some people say, ‘I love history or music or art, so I want to teach it,” Shearer said. “But, do you love children? If you don’t love children, loving your subject will never be enough.”

An educator since 1994, Shearer began her career as a volunteer at the New Jersey School for the Deaf while she was still a pre-med student at Princeton University. Despite nudging toward medical school from friends and professors, teaching was always Shearer’s calling, she said.

“Teaching as a career was not well-received at Princeton,” Shearer explained. “So for a brief period of time, I decided to be pre-med. But I had this nagging desire to teach. So I started volunteering every Tuesday at a school for the deaf. As soon as I would leave the classroom, all I could think about was when it was going to be Tuesday again.”

During her career, Shearer, who is certified in both science and special education, has used her passion for chemistry and teaching to inspire students with attention deficit disorder, Asperger syndrome, dyslexia and dysgraphia, among other learning challenges. She learned American Sign Language working one-on-one with deaf students and completed a master’s degree in deaf education at McDaniel College.

A proponent of STEM education, Shearer also implemented an advanced placement chemistry program at the Maryland School for the Deaf, allowing students at the school to enroll in AP chemistry for the first time.

During her visit to UM, Shearer shared teaching techniques and her personal philosophy on teaching: students – whether high-ability, special needs, elementary or secondary – learn best by experiencing subject matter. This is something she lets her advanced chemistry students do with experiments such as firing off alcohol cannons or blowing up hydrogen-filled balloons.

“When my students enter my classroom, they always have two questions,” she said. “One is ‘Are we going to burn anything today?’ The other is ‘Are we going to blow anything up?'”

Shearer lines her classroom with household cleaning products to show students that chemistry is everywhere, thus, it’s a subject for everyone.

“When a student comes to me and says chemistry doesn’t matter because he’s never going to be a chemist, I say ‘Yeah,'” Shearer explained. “But you are going to wash your clothes; you are going to take medicine when you are sick!”

Senior elementary education major Katie Mullins, who is student-teaching at Lafayette Elementary School, left Shearer’s address motived to return to her own students.

“What impressed me the most was how she encouraged us to never say ‘I’m just a teacher,'” Mullins explained. “I take what I do very seriously. I am a teacher. I wish every teacher could get the chance to meet her.”

UM DeSoto teacher candidate Lynette Hibbler, who is student-teaching at Hernando Elementary School, also enjoyed Shearer’s message.

“It was comforting,” she said. “It’s good to be reminded that the important thing is concentrating on the students themselves; not worrying about all the other distractions that come with being a teacher.”

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